Nikola Tesla, who turned on the world with his AC technology, talks about robots, cell phones, and the sacred fire of invention.
WIRED: Your alternating-current technology revolutionized electric power almost overnight, but the world is only now catching up with your other ideas. What’s the role of invention in today’s tech-driven society?
TESLA: It is the most important product of man’s creative brain. The ultimate purpose is the complete mastery of mind over the material world, the harnessing of human nature to human needs.
What advice would you give to someone following in your footsteps?
To concentrate all his energies on one single great effort. Let him perceive a single truth, even though he’ll be consumed by the sacred fire, and millions of less gifted men can easily follow him. Let him toil day and night with a small chance of achieving and yet be unflinching. It is not as much quantity as quality of work which determines the magnitude of the progress.
And we’ve seen plenty of progress toward things you predicted, from cosmic rays to subatomic forces. Any sense we’re reaching our limits?
Even in the fields most successfully exploited, the ground has only been broken. What has been so far done by electricity is nothing as compared to what the future has in store. It is paradoxical yet true to say that the more we know, the more ignorant we become in the absolute sense, for it is only through enlightenment that we become conscious of our limitations. Precisely one of the most gratifying results of intellectual evolution is the continuous opening up of new and greater prospects.
And that evolution leads where? What are the barriers to getting there?
Of all the frictional resistances, the one that most retards human movement is ignorance, what Buddha called “the greatest evil in the world.” The friction which results from ignorance can be reduced only by the spread of knowledge and the unification of the heterogeneous elements of humanity. No effort could be better spent.
So the world will be made a better place by convergence?
A sense of connectedness of the various apparently widely different forces and phenomena we observe is taking possession of our minds, a sense of deeper understanding, which, though not yet quite clear and defined, is keen enough to inspire us with the confidence of vast realizations in the near future.
This same sense of connection could pay off with world peace, you insist, even if it takes a while to get there.
Universal peace as a result of cumulative effort through centuries past might come into existence quickly — not unlike a crystal that suddenly forms in a solution which has been slowly prepared.
Or maybe a liquid crystal display. Will an always-on global network mean the death of distance and the end of war?
The chief cause of war is the vast extent of this planet. The gradual annihilation of distance will put human beings in closer contact and harmonize their views and aspirations.
You once were quite dose to Thomas Edison, your mentor, your foe, and another of the modern age’s most prolific inventors. What was he like?
I was amazed at this wonderful man who without early advantage or scientific training had accomplished so much. But after working with him day in and day out, I became frustrated. If Edison needed to find a needle in a haystack, he would not stop to reason where the needle might be, but rather would examine every straw, straw after straw like a diligent bee until he found the object of his search. I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of his labor.
At one time you offered to redesign his system.
The manager promised me $50,000 on completion of this task. When I did, and tried to collect, Edison laughed and said it was a joke and that I didn’t understand American humor.
You then formed a partnership with another powerful household name — Westinghouse.
George Westinghouse was a man with tremendous potential energy of which only part had taken kinetic form. Like a lion in the forest, he breathed deep and with delight the smokey air of his Pittsburgh factories. Always affable and polite, he stood in marked contrast to the small-minded financiers I had been trying to negotiate with before I met him. Yet, no fiercer adversary could have been found when aroused. Westinghouse welcomed the struggle and never lost confidence. When others would give up in despair, he triumphed.
Particularly in buying your patent that trumped Edison’s “commutator.”
Westinghouse told me he simply “could not afford to have others own the patents.” Mr. Westinghouse recognized that my system, which made the commutator obsolete, was the solution to the problem of distributing power by means of electrical currents.
AC is just one of dozens of inventions credited to you. Another is wireless technology. But you never went commercial with it.
I demonstrated the procedure in my laboratory and in lecture halls before scientists and the public in New York City, Saint Louis, Philadelphia, London, and Paris, and long distance experiments from one end of New York City to another, up the Hudson to West Point and over hundreds of miles at my experimental station in Colorado Springs. I knew my system would work. I had the fundamental patents. So rather than waste time setting up additional demonstrations for the press or public, I simply set my sights on constructing a working wireless transmission tower.
At your Wardenclyffe Tower headquarters on Long Island. What happened?
It was never finished. I thought it would take a year to establish commercially my wireless girdle around the world. Had this been achieved when it was planned, in 1903, the public would have clamored to send their messages to Europe or receive their dispatches from any other corner of the globe.
Wasn’t Marconi already ahead of you on this?
Marconi was essentially trying to send pulsed frequencies, Morse code, dots and dashes. But he was using outmoded equipment, and Hertz’s outmoded ideas, even if he did pirate my oscillators. Marconi tried to claim priority, but this was overturned in courts around the world.
Now, you wanted to go way beyond mere data transmission — getting rid of power lines altogether and sending electricity through the air from Wardenclyffe.
If a similar tower were placed, say, in England, which was my plan, then energy could be jumped by means of wireless over the Atlantic to that receiving tower. From there the electricity could be transmitted either by means of wireless to the local dwellings or by conventional means, that is, but using wires. Mostly, the idea would be to locate receiving plants at distant places that were not near sources of power, like waterfalls.
You’ve always been keen on alternative energy.
No matter what we attempt to do, no matter to what fields we turn our efforts, we are dependent on power. We have to evolve means of obtaining energy from stores which are forever inexhaustible, to perfect methods which do not imply consumption and waste of any material whatever. If we use fuel to get our power, we are living on our capital and exhausting it rapidly. This method is barbarous and wantonly wasteful and will have to be stopped in the interest of coming generations.
OK — we’ve heard that speech before. What do you propose?
A far better way to obtain power would be to avail ourselves of the sun’s rays, which beat the Earth incessantly and theoretically supply energy at a rate of over 1 million horsepower per square mile.
Solar? We’ve got a storage problem there.
That is where the research should be focused.
One focus of your research a century ago was cellular — and your multiple-channel approach works around the current bandwidth crunch.
My world telegraphy system makes use of continuous waves — what have come to be called Tesla currents — from which any number of operations can be derived. I realized that the first problem to overcome was that of interference, so I constructed vacuum tubes which responded to a combination of two or more frequencies. The telautomaton displayed at Madison Square Garden in 1898 was constructed in this fashion. By multiplying frequencies in this manner a virtually unlimited number of non-interfering channels can be created. The key is to combine frequencies.
Primitive forms of artificial intelligence also came from your lab. What will our first true thinking machines look like?
Primitive? I prefer the word fundamental. My plan was to construct an automaton which would have its “own mind,” and by this I mean it would be able, independent of any operator, in response to external influences affecting its sensitive organs, to perform a great variety of acts and operations as if it had intelligence. It will be able to obey orders given far in advance, it will be capable of distinguishing between what it ought and ought not to do and of recording impressions which will definitely affect its subsequent actions. Further I do not believe that intelligence is artificial, but rather a property of matter.
Matter is alive?
Even matter called inorganic, believed to be dead, responds to irritants and gives unmistakable evidence of a living principle within. Everything that exists, organic or inorganic, animated or inert, is susceptible to stimulus from the outside.
Tell us more about your work on telautomatons — in other words, robots.
I conceived the idea of constructing such a machine, which would mechanically represent me and which would respond as I do myself, but of course in a much more primitive manner, to external influences. Whether the automaton be of flesh and bone, or wood and steel, it mattered little, provided it could undertake all the duties required of it like an intelligent being. With machines to do the work, man will be that much more free to increase his knowledge and productivity and thereby advance the planet.
Let’s talk about longevity. At the tender age of 77, back in 1933, you told The New York Times you expected to live past your 140th birthday.
Really, you know, even now, I’m still a youngster. I’ve never felt better in my life. In my prime I did not possess the energy I have today. And what is more, in solving problems I use but a small part of the energy I possess for I have learned how to conserve it.
But isn’t part of longevity genes, not genius?
I have descended from a people who came from the mountains of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, some who lived past 110, we even had one relative who made it to 129. I began from the start with the plan to outlive each of them. The secret of my own strength and vitality today is that in my youth I led a virtuous life. I have never dissipated this energy. I controlled my passions and appetites to make my dream come true — disciplining myself for a worthwhile life. Since I love my work above all things, it is only natural that I should continue it until I die. I want no vacation. Many are saddened and depressed by the brevity of life, and yet they do so many things to pave the way to an early grave.
Even matter believed to be dead responds to irritants and gives unmistakable evidence of a living principle within.
So how did you avoid an early demise?
Human energy can be increased by careful attention to health, by substantial food in moderation, by regularity of habits, by adhering to the many precepts and laws of religion and hygiene, by the promotion of marriage, and conscientious attention to children. Laxity of morals is a terrible evil which poisons the body and mind.
What about the more down-to-earth details?
Plenty of exercise. Pure thoughts, abstinence, hard work, an occasional glass of wine, and a strict diet of a product I call factor actus. It’s a simple health potion equivalent to the protein value of a dozen eggs, made from 12 vegetables including white leeks, cabbage hearts, flower of cauliflower, white turnips, and lettuce hearts.
Does your busy schedule make time for sleep?
I come from a long-lived family but it is noted for its poor sleepers. Sometimes I doze for an hour or so. Occasionally, however once every four or five months I may sleep for four or five hours. Then I awaken virtually charged with energy like a battery.
What about your “electric baths”? Describe exactly happens during an electric bath.
I step aboard a special platform which can transmits millions of volts through my body. This is at a very low power, but very high frequency, as much as 80 million oscillations a second. The electricity, for the most part, travels around the surface throwing off unwanted molecules with extreme vigor. While the same voltage would cause a piece of metal to explode apart, local effects can be produced which interfere with malignant growths, thereby breaking down cancer cells.
Is that how your cured Mark Twain?
I had another device, an oscillating platform that stimulates powerfully the peristaltic movements which propel foodstuffs through the alimentary channels. Called mechanical therapy, this device relieves those who suffer from dyspepsia, stomach troubles, constipation, flatulence, and other disturbances. My great friend Mark Twain came to my laboratory in the worst shape suffering from a variety of distressing and dangerous ailments, but in less than two months upon my platform, he regained his old vigor and ability to enjoy life to its fullest extent.
Who else frequented your laboratory?
Oh, so many of society’s élite. Rudyard Kipling, Anton Dvořák, John Muir …
Immortals all. You, of course, enjoy another kind of immortality — you live every time we plug in an electric device. Do you ever despair at not seeing all of your ideas realized?
The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of a planter — for the future. His duty is to lay foundation of those who are to come and point the way.